United States District Court, D. New Jersey
LIBBY HILSENRATH, on behalf of her minor child, C.H.,, Plaintiff,
SCHOOL DISTRICT OF THE CHATHAMS; BOARD OF EDUCATION OF SCHOOL DISTRICT OF THE CHATHAMS; MICHAEL LASUSA, in his official capacity as the Superintendent of the School District of the Chathams; KAREN CHASE, in her official capacity as the Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction at the School District of the Chathams; JILL GIHORSKI, in her official capacity as the Principal of Chatham Middle School; STEVEN MAHER, in his official capacity as the Supervisor of Social Studies for the School District of the Chathams; MEGAN KEOWN, in her official capacity as a Social Studies teacher for Chatham Middle School; CHRISTINE JAKOWSKI, in her official capacity as a Social Studies teacher for Chatham Middle School; Defendants.
MCNULTY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
the Court is the defendants' motion to dismiss the
complaint for failure to state a claim. See Fed. R.
Civ. P. 12(b)(6). For the reasons stated herein, the motion
will be denied.
plaintiff, Libby Hilsenrath (on behalf of her child, C.H., a
middle school student), sues the Chatham School District and
Board of Education, as well as individual school
administrators and teachers in their official capacities
only. She asserts a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 that
the school's curriculum violates the Establishment Clause
of the First Amendment by promoting the Islamic faith.
position, if I may paraphrase it, is that the public schools
may not Constitutionally proselytize on behalf of a religion,
but that the Chatham schools have crossed that line here. In
particular, the plaintiff alleges, C.H. has been exposed to
two videos and a worksheet that contain materials that
members of the Islamic faith use to express religious beliefs
or proselytize others. The Complaint begins with a quotation from
those materials: "May God help us all find the true
faith, Islam. Ameen." This is captioned as the Chatham
school authorities' "call for the conversion of
7th grade students." Such materials, the
Complaint alleges, have a primary purpose of promoting and
advancing the Islamic religion. The Complaint also alleges
that the curriculum gives insufficient attention to the
Christian and Jewish religions. The Complaint primarily seeks
declaratory and injunctive relief, but adds a prayer for
nominal damages, as well as costs and fees.
defendants' position, likewise paraphrased, is that world
religions have a profound influence on human affairs and are
therefore an appropriate subject of secular study. The
Chatham curriculum, in their view, does not exceed proper
bounds. The defendants have moved to dismiss the complaint,
stating that they have not promoted, endorsed, or
proselytized on behalf of any religion. Rather, say the
defendants, the students study world religions as part of
their academic education in a class called World Cultures and
Geography. That yearlong class, they say, covers many areas
of the world, and embraces such subjects such as geography,
trade, art, social, economic and political structures, and
everyday life, as well as religions and religious texts. Many
religions, they say, are covered, but to study them is not to
endorse or promote them. One unit of the class covers the
Middle East and North Africa, and materials concerning the
Islamic faith, say defendants, are a necessary part of that
unit. They allege that the class has no parochial focus or
agenda; the materials regarding Islam, according to
defendants, must be understood as but one component of a
comprehensive social studies curriculum.
not endorse either party's position to recognize that
there is a dispute here which requires the development of a
factual context. This complaint, as complaints do, makes
allegations which are yet untested by any fact finder. The
motion to dismiss, as such motions sometimes will, makes
other, also untested statements about the broader curriculum
and the educational process. No evidence, however, is yet
before the court. Such factual, context-dependent issues
cannot be resolved at this very early stage of the
put it another way. As a lawsuit, this matter may present
controversial issues. As a motion to dismiss, it does not.
There will be opportunity enough to consider the substantive
issues when evidence has been developed in discovery and the
facts have been developed. For now, I will deny the motion to
dismiss with minimal discussion.
Sufficiency of the allegations
component of the defendants' motion asserts that the
Complaint should be dismissed pursuant to Federal Rule of
Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon
which relief may be granted.
The applicable standard of review
12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of a complaint, in whole
or in part, if it fails to state a claim upon which relief
can be granted. The defendant, as the moving party, bears the
burden of showing that no claim has been stated. Hedges
v. United States, 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005). In
deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court must take the
allegations of the complaint as true and draw reasonable
inferences in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.
Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 231
(3d Cir. 2008) (traditional "reasonable inferences"
principle not undermined by Twombly, see infra).
Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) does not require that a
complaint contain detailed factual allegations. Nevertheless,
"a plaintiffs obligation to provide the
'grounds' of his 'entitlement to relief requires
more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation
of the elements of a cause of action will not do."
Bell Atl Corp. v. Twombly,550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007).
Thus, the complaint's factual allegations must be
sufficient to raise a plaintiffs right to relief above a
speculative level, so that a claim is "plausible on its
face." Id. at 570; see also Umland v.
PLANCO Fin. Serv., Inc.,542 F.3d 59, 64 (3d Cir. 2008).
That facial-plausibility standard is met "when the
plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to
draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable
for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal,556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) ...